Oxytocin. The “love drug”! The “cuddle hormone”! I joke around that two summers of doing research around the presence of oxytocin has made me even more of a hugger than I already am—Heck, it’s made me want to instantly bond and become best friends with every stranger I meet! Of course this isn’t quite true, but it’s nice to be able to reassure others when asked “what’s oxytocin?” that oxytocin is far from a scary drug but actually a naturally occurring hormone released that promotes bonding and other emotions we often associate with friendship and love. In fact, oxytocin is produced during labor and is often linked to maternal bonding between a mother and child.
So what does oxytocin has to do with what I’m up to this summer? Well, firstly, this summer, I came back to UCSF (University of California San Francisco) to research at the BAND Lab (Bonding and Attunement in Neuropsychiatric Disorders). The BAND Lab itself is housed at the San Francisco Veteran Affairs Medical Center, which makes for a particularly unique lab experience, in part because of its hospital location, but also because the SFVA is a government facility that specifically caters towards providing care to veterans (many of the participants at the studies at our lab are veterans).
I am part of a team at the lab working on a study called PORQ. PORQ stands for Psychosis Oxytocin Research Quest, and the way we describe our study is that it is designed to assess the effects of oxytocin on social cognition in psychosis-spectrum disorders. In particular, the study recruits patients with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, the positive symptoms of which include psychosis (As a quick aside: “positive symptoms” in this context refers to an added symptom that is not experienced by others, such as hallucinations and psychosis, and “negative symptoms” would refer to deficits that occur as a result of the disorder, such as reduced social drive and a blunt affect). Those with these disorders have been shown to experience social and behavioral deficits. As you can imagine, these deficits directly impact aspects of everyday life. Work, education, and personal life all rely heavily on social cognition. Therefore, the study seeks to administer oxytocin intranasally (via a nasal spray) and examine whether social cognition improves after administration. Administration of oxytocin has been shown to have effects that demonstrate social improvement, so the effects of this study could support oxytocin as treatment for social deficits in patients who suffer from psychosis-spectrum disorders such as schizophrenia.
Overall, the summer has been incredibly rewarding. I have had the chance to run participants through the study, both as experimenter (directly interacting with participants, guiding them through the study, the consenting process, obtaining physiological data such as heart rates, respiration, etc.), as well as act as “operator” (this role runs the technical equipment during the study—which can include some pretty cool softwares!). It’s been fantastic being able to have this experience, and I am really fortunate that my lab allows me to be able to work so closely with the study. I do everything from conducting phone screenings to determine patient eligibility, to preparing each patient’s pre-study materials, to conducting the study itself, data storage, and am now being trained on post-study data processing such as a transcription. In this way, because I am involved with each step, the bigger picture goal of the study is always on my mind. Sure, each step of the process is important—but it makes the work so much more meaningful to know that the fruits of this study might shed some light on how to help those who suffer daily from negative functional outcomes due to their disorder.
Experiences like Christina’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff